Mundane organizations that work. More from Prof. March

It would be wrong to demystify heroic leaders without simultaneously celebrating mundane organizations. More from Appendix 2, “Mundane Organizations and Heroic Leaders”, in On Leadership:

Let me mention four components of elementary efficiency in organizations. They are neither novel nor mysterious; but they are, I believe, fundamental. The first of these, and I suspect the most important, is simple competence. Organizations work well if people in them know what they are doing. How is competence encouraged? In some very traditional ways. It requires appointment and promotion on the basis of merit rather than personal ties or irrelevant characteristics. It requires a division of labor, specialization, routinization, and training. […]

A secondo component of elementary efficiency is initiative. Organizations work well if problems are attended to most of the time locally, promptly, and autonomously. This is accomplished by delegation accompanied by instincts or rules of tolerance. If you are going to encourage initiative, you need to be tolerant of small deviations from what you would to yourself in the same situations. […]

A third component of elementary efficiency is identification. Organizations work well if persons in them take pride in their work and the organization. They have a sense of shared destiny, mutual trust, and collective identity. […]

A fourth component of elementary efficiency is unobtrusive coordination. Organizations work well if the autonomous actions of individuals are coordinated effectively, quickly, and inexpensively. […]

In fact, competence, initiative, identification, and unobtrusive coordination, and decisions about them, are at the heart of effective leadership. They are not grand; they are not heroic; they are not – for the most part – even interesting. […]

The contrast between the elementary things that make an organization work and heroic conceptions of leadership is striking. It is also potentially unsettling for leaders. Acknowledgement of the relative unimportance of leadership heroics is inconsistent with their interpretations of their own experiences. They do not want it to be true, and they do not believe it to be true. As a result, they overlook some things that seem to me quite fundamental to understanding how organizations work.

First, organizations work because of a density of ordinary competence throughout the organization. […] Organizations that work are those in which if someone sees a toilet not working, he or she fixes it. […]

Second, organizations work because subunits and individuals are interdependently autonomous. That is, they are left alone to do their jobs. There is mutual delegation and mutual confidence. Work is coordinated in a relatively unobtrusive manner, less by explicit interventions than by mutual anticipations. […] In short, organizations work better when organizational management is more like sailing than power boating.

Third, organizations work well because they have redundancy. Almost everyone is important but no one is indispensable, either over time or at a given point. If a task need to be done, there are several individuals, technologies, and routines available to do it. […] Without redundancy organizations are vulnerable to failure if any individual part fails; and that likelihood increases rapidly with increasing scale and complexity of organizational operations.

Fourth, organizations work because they have mutual trust without personal favoritism. Classic forms of trust, in families for example, are associated with favoritism. An organization requires a different form of trust, not confidence in mutual personal support but confidence that a job will be done well and with understanding of the job requirements of others. […]

Because of the ways in which we write and think about organizational leadership, and because of the personal success experience by which we prepare individuals for leadership, these mundane truisms about organizations are likely to be forgotten by leaders as they look for dramatic ways to make their marks upon an organizations.

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